Bird lovers flock to Whidbey Island

From the left, Sara Gray, Emma Ruggiero, George Gray and Mary Pat Larsen scan the woods next to the Oak Harbor Lutheran Church Saturday. - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
From the left, Sara Gray, Emma Ruggiero, George Gray and Mary Pat Larsen scan the woods next to the Oak Harbor Lutheran Church Saturday.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

For loyal bird lovers, the weekend before Christmas means hard work; and not the type that involves last-minute shopping.

The 110th annual Christmas Bird Count brought bird-watchers from across Whidbey Island together Saturday, with the giddy prospects of sighting a unique bird or absorbing the outdoors.

“It was a wonderful day, but we didn’t see anything unusual. We saw the species we thought we would see,” Janet Hall, of Whidbey Audubon Society said. “It was a mellow year.”

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is a semiofficial census of bird populations worldwide, conducted between Dec. 13 and Jan. 5. It’s become an annual tradition on Whidbey since the 1980s, but the first-ever count was in 1900, when Frank Chapman came up with the idea of counting birds as an alternative to hunting them.

Researchers say the data from these citizen scientists is a good indicator of changing habitats and environmental health.

“It’s something to contribute to science without having a Ph.D,” birder Steve Ellis said.

Armed with binoculars and warm clothes, the birding teams broke up into “count circles,” about 15 miles in diameter. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., they scanned trees, fields and feeders, counting every bird they saw.

Hall and five others—Emma Ruggiero, Mary Pat Larsen, Lee Chavez and George and Sara Gray—spent the day counting inside the Oak Harbor city limits and near the harbor.

By 10 a.m., on a quiet trek in the forested area by Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, the birders were excited to find a medium-sized hermit thrush. The bird is reclusive in the winter time, Hall said.

For the harder-to-spot birds, teams used other means for identification. Nuthatches, for example, make a nasal sound unlike any other species. Many birds are identified by behavior, habitat or the noises the make.

Gary Piazzon said he heard something extremely unusual in his counting area between Libbey Road, Fort Nugent, Highway 20 and Puget Sound.

“I heard frogs and a couple song sparrows singing. I can’t recall having heard that in December before,” he said.

In his 15 years participating in the bird count, Piazzon said the temperature has become a little milder (reaching about 47 degrees Saturday), and he’s noticed other changes, too.

Populations of Western Grebes and Surf Scoters, both sea birds, have shrunk and there are fluctuations in the type of birds found in the winter.

“This count also enables you to survey the area in terms of changes on the ground and what people are doing on their property,” Piazzon said. “There has been a lot of filling and development in the years I’ve been doing this. Hastie Lake used to be a lake, now it’s a marsh.”

Near sundown, the day’s counting done, the birders met at Au Sable Institute to talk over their finds.

While they found most of the birds they expected to see, the numbers revealed another dip in certain sea birds. In total, the teams found 66 species.

As for Surf Scoters, Ellis said his group “got over 400, but there used to be as many as 1,500.” The White-winged Scoters used to be prevalent on Penn Cove, but now they’re almost gone, Ellis added.

“That could be a number of factors such as breeding grounds, they could be picking up a pollutant or they can’t find food they like here anymore,” he said.

The teams will pass their figures to the National Audubon Society for analysis. You can find this year’s results from Whidbey Island by visiting

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